• Eugene McGarrell

How to vaccinate against a toxic culture

Updated: Mar 21, 2019


The Social and Economic Benefits of Improving Mental Health Productivity Commission kicked off in January with the publication of an Issues Paper. The Australian Government's Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has charged the Commission to undertake an inquiry into the role of improving mental health to support economic participation and enhancing productivity and economic growth.


In 2018 the NSW Government published the Mentally Healthy Workplaces Strategy to raise awareness, collate evidence based interventions, leverage from the research and build organisational capability to create more mentally healthy workplaces.


The case for employers to take mental health seriously has been underlined by the estimated cost of absenteeism and presenteeism in reviews undertaken by PWC in 2014 and KPMG in 2018 to be in the region of $10bn a year.


So why are workplaces not taking these lessons seriously?


I'm sure most of us have worked in organisations where they try to create mentally healthy workplaces. Unfortunately "Fruit bowls and yoga" is not the answer. The key for success is of course leadership.


The Board and CEO need to see the credible link between a mentally healthy workplace and organisational financial performance. The CEO also needs to determine that a mentally healthy workplace is important and a priority. It's not unsurprising that competing urgent issues can downgrade a mentally healthy workplace strategy to a hand full of human resource activities. But no one in the organisation will be fooled. Renaming your EAPS service and instituting mental health days will not achieve a reduction of absenteeism and presenteeism. These strategies will not improve productivity.


So where do CEOs start to create a mentally healthy workplace that will lead to an increase in performance and productivity? Let's start with the people that make the culture toxic. Toxic leaders are everywhere in organisations. They are at best selfish people with no insight and at worst they have personality disorders including narcissist disorders. Many secure senior executive roles at the highest levels and do significant harm to the organisation without realising their contribution to the poor performance of the workforce.


Marcia Lynn Whicker, author of Toxic Leader [1996] suggests to:


1. Be aware that toxic leadership is a real threat to organizational health.

2. Talk to toxic leaders in a non–threatening way, but let them know you are aware.

3. Work through the organizational channels to express concern about the situation.

4. Put everything in writing, you may need documentation later on.

5. Identify trustworthy leaders in the organizations and reach out to them.

6. Be firm at every step and refuse to engage in dysfunctional behaviors.

7. Maintain productivity despite efforts by others to undermine it.

8. Take a long run view and try to ignore petty slights and actions.

9. Refuse to participate in secret meetings and agreements.

10. Remember that toxic leaders are fundamentally flawed and will eventually self–destruct


We know that toxic leadership leaves followers worse off, violates rights and dignity, spins news and gossip and promotes or ignores incompetence. There is significant evidence that toxic leadership leads to a toxic culture which then leads to a mentally unhealthy workplace. Robert I. Sutton wrote his book back in 2007 titled "The No Asshole Rule" in response to his understanding of the "emotional contagion" of toxic people in the workplace.


Whoever we talk to, the toxic people are always "other people". How do we know for sure that we aren't demonstrating toxic behaviours? How often have we worked for toxic leaders and been surprised that they show no insight? What if I am that toxic leader?


According to Sutton leaders can minimise the impact of their toxic behaviour in the following way:


1. Face their past and try to be their authentic self.

2. Avoid making people feel humiliated, de–energized, or belittled.

3. Avoid mistreating less powerful people.

4. Focus on win–win–win (others, self, and the organization).

5. Not thinking to be better or worse than others (be humble).

6. Focus on the similarities and synergies with others (rather than the differences).

7. Be happy and satisfied with themselves (no reason to stomp on others).


If we are honest with ourselves we will identify some toxic characteristics in our behaviours at work. The emotionally mature will have insight and will reflect on those behaviours. The emotionally immature will spend little or no time reflecting on their behaviour and therefore the impact of that behaviour.


As leaders we have a responsibility to really reflect on our contribution to the workplace culture. If we can't attract and retain good people, if our absentee rates are trending up, if our workers compensations costs are rising and if our profit margins are narrowing then it is time to reflect on how leadership behaviors are contributing to the organisational outcomes.



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